Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban reached an agreement on a roadmap to end nearly 18 years of war. But much more difficult work lies ahead to achieve permanent peace, experts say.
A peace conference that brought together Afghanistan's warring sides ended on Tuesday with a statement that appeared to push the war-torn country a step closer to peace.
The two-day talks, held in Qatar's capital Doha, were attended by representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as women delegates and members of the country's civil society.
The conference ended with a joint statement pledging a "roadmap for peace." The declaration also called on all the warring sides to stop attacking social welfare institutions such as schools, religious centers, mosques and hospitals, among other sites.
"All participants have full consensus that achieving sustainable, throughout and a dignified peace, which is the demand of the Afghan people, is only possible via Afghan-inclusive negotiations," stated the resolution.
The document in itself is unprecedented and the fact that the participants were able to find common ground on such sensitive issues is a major success for all sides involved in the event — including the hosts, Germany and Qatar.
But this success did not come easily: It took members of the commission tasked with writing the text of the resolution — six Afghan delegates and three Taliban members — around 14 hours to finalize the document.
"It was a harsh debate. Taliban members were pushing for the inclusion of their points and we were arguing for ours, but at the end we were able to find common ground," Habiba Surabi, deputy head of the Afghan High Peace Council and one of the two female members of the commission, told DW. "I was elected by all members, including the Taliban, as the head of the commission, which, I believe, is a progress in itself," she added.
But Surabi also noted that her appointment could have been a result of pressure from the international community on the Taliban, and not an indication of any change in how the group perceives women.
Afghanistan: Taliban attack Ghazni, talk peace in Doha
Taliban mindset changed?
Afghans have been getting used to watching Taliban members on their TV screens in recent months, as the insurgents increasingly engage in talks with officials from other countries, including the US, as well as Afghan politicians, be it in Doha, Moscow or other parts of the world.
But even by current standards, the scenes in Qatar on July 7-8 were unprecedented.
Videos of the conference circulating on social media show Taliban members mingling with women during breaks. This opportunity was used by many female delegates to share their concerns about the uncertain fate that might await them in case of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
"I met Taliban members for the first time since 2001 and used the chance to show them how Afghanistan and the people of this country have changed since then," Laila Jafari, a participant, told DW. "I believe the Taliban need more time to understand the current reality of Afghanistan but what happened in Qatar during the conference was a good first step."
Many Afghans are concerned by the fact that Taliban positions on many key issues still remain either unchanged or unclear.
In the joint resolution, for instance, there's no mention of the upcoming presidential elections. Many sources say that Taliban delegates refused to discuss the topic during the conference as well as in private chats with Afghan government representatives.
The document also failed to clarify the Taliban's position on women's rights. It instead addressed the topic by stating that "assuring women's rights in political, social, economic, educational, cultural affairs within the framework of Islamic values" was needed to achieving effective peace.
It might look like a breakthrough on the surface, but includes a big caveat — that of defining and interpreting women's rights within the Islamic framework.
"I am not satisfied with everything that's included [in the resolution]. We still have to be careful about the Taliban's positions, especially those regarding women's rights," Fuzia Kufi, a conference participant and former member of the Afghan parliament, told DW. "Though it was a good first step […] we have to watch the situation carefully."
The participants of the Doha conference told DW that Taliban members had told delegates that the group no longer opposed girls' education and women's work, if the educational system was segregated and women had separate offices from their male coworkers.
Difficult work ahead
The resolution of the intra-Afghan talks is non-binding, which raises the possibility of the Taliban ignoring its provisions if it suits their interests. That's why all eyes are now on the negotiations between the US and the Taliban.
The US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, wound up on Tuesday the seventh round of talks he has held with the Taliban in Qatar. Both the Taliban and Khalilzad said that the latest round of talks, which began on June 28, was the "most productive" since the effort began late last year, with progress on a counterterrorism assurance, a troop withdrawal, and dialogue between rival Afghans as well as a ceasefire.
Despite signs of progress, both sides have yet to reach an agreement on any of the key issues, including the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Previously, the Taliban, whose regime was ousted by the US in a 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, made it clear that they won't include the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in peace talks, denouncing the administration in Kabul as a "foreign puppet." Ghani, on the other hand, insists that long-lasting peace could only be achieved through Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace talks.
"There is a clear understanding among the Afghan and US governments [on peace efforts] ... we hope that there will be a preliminary agreement on the Afghan peace process in two months," Waheed Omer, a senior adviser on public and strategic affairs to President Ghani, told a news conference in Kabul, in reference to US officials' recent comments about Washington's goal to achieve a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1, 2019. "Only then will 'serious peace talks' begin […] we cannot say anything about how long 'serious peace talks' may last," he stressed.
Omer's statements highlight the long and difficult path ahead to bring permanent peace to Afghanistan, as the three major players involved in the process — the Taliban, the Afghan government and the US — seem to have different definitions of peace for the war-ravaged nation.